I really haven’t followed baseball very closely since Roberto’s Clemente’s untimely death 39 years ago. Before that, however, I was an avid fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates. All baseball play-by-play announcers have their own special ways of calling home runs, but for Bob Prince, the longtime voice of the Pirates, it was a triumphant, “You can kiss it goodbye.”
Because of my lack of interest in Major League baseball during the past four decades, I was completely unaware of the miraculous accomplishments of the Oakland Athletics during the 2002 season, when they won an incredible 20 games in a row to break the America League record. And they accomplished this despite having the lowest payroll of any other team in the Major Leagues. The credit for much of their success during that season belongs to general manager Billy Beane, who is the subject of “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” a 2003 bestseller written by Michael Lewis.
Now Lewis’ book has been adapted for the silver screen, and the result is an absolutely riveting film, directed by Academy Award nominee Bennett Miller (“Capote”), that should contend for Oscars in number of categories, including best picture, best actor, best director, and best supporting actor. In addition to being a fascinating story about an equally interesting person, the film offers an intriguing look behind the scenes of Major League baseball from the front office to the locker room to the field.
After his Oakland A’s lost to the New York Yankees in the 2001 playoffs, general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) didn’t have much to look forward to in the upcoming season because he loses three of his best players. Jason Giambi, an all-star first baseman went to the New York Yankees, and Johnny Damon, an excellent outfielder jumped to the Boston Red Sox. Finally, Jason Isringhausen, an outstanding closing pitcher, joined the St. Louis Cardinals. The A’s simply couldn’t afford their services because going into the 2002 season, the A’s’ budget of $40 million was rock bottom in the big leagues. The Yankees, on the other hand, had $125 million to work with, and it’s no wonder that Billy felt extremely frustrated when the owner of his team refused to come up with any additional cash.
Oddly enough the solution to Billy’s problem turns up when Billy makes a visit to the office of the Cleveland Indians. There he meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a computer genius with a degree from Yale who has been keeping stats for the Indians. Brand has a theory about how to build a winning baseball team that goes against every element of conventional wisdom associated with the national past time. But Billy is somewhat of a free spirit, and he hires Peter away from the Indians and sets out to shake things up.
In discussing his team with Peter, the general manager says, “There are rich teams, and there are poor teams. Then there’s 50 feet of crap. Then there’s us.”
And Peter is quick to point out that Billy’s approach to the game is incorrect when he says, “Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players. Your goal should be to buy wins. In order to buy wins, you need to buy runs.”
Peter’s theory of forming a winning team is based upon sabermetrics, which advocates choosing players with a high probability of getting on base rather than those with the greatest skills. Although he is naturally skeptical at first, Billy ultimately gives the system a try, and after losing 11 consecutive games early in the 2002 season, the A’s finished the year by putting together a record-breaking 20-straight win streak. They posted a season’s record of 103-59 en route to finishing first in the American League West.
Pitt, who already has two Oscar nominations to his credit, certainly should add a third to his total with his outstanding performance in this film. He imbues Billy with an infectiously flamboyant bravado that makes you want to pull for him to be successful. He doesn’t merely portray Billy; he actually becomes the character. Billy is divorced, but despite his preoccupation with the A’s, he also works very hard at being a good father to his daughter, Casey, portrayed with irresistible charm by Kerris Dorsey, and his scenes with her are incredibly touching. Whether he is being the hard-nosed general manager or the loving father, Pitt is consistently convincing. In the film’s production notes he offered the following insight into his character and the film.
“In many ways, Billy’s going up against an institution – one that many smart individuals have dedicated their lives to. The minute you start questioning any of those norms, you can be labeled a heretic or dismissed as foolish. These guys had to step back and ask, ‘If we were going to start this game today, is this how we’d do it?’ A system that has worked for 150 years doesn’t work for us – I think that’s applicable to the moments of flux we’re experiencing today.
“The film is about how we value things. How we value each other; how we value ourselves; and how we decide who’s a winner based on those values. The film questions the very idea of how to define success. It places great value on this quiet, personal victory, the victory that’s not splashed across the headlines or necessarily results in trophies, but that, for Beane, became a kind of personal Everest. At the end of the day, we all hope that what we’re doing will be of some value, that it will mean something, and I think that is this character’s quest.”
Complementing Pitt’s performance are Hall, who is outstanding as Billy’s nerdish sidekick, Robin Wright as his estranged wife, Sharon, and Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is perfectly cast as Art Howe, the team’s cantankerous manager. And all of the actors who portray the players are exceptional.
In addition to the stellar acting, “Moneyball” (It gets a final score of 9.) boasts spectacular cinematography and some terrific scenes of baseball games. It definitely is one of the year’s finest films, and the best way to describe it is to borrow a phrase from the legendary Bob Prince and say the film is so good that, “You can kiss it goodbye!”